Meet your new favourite motorsport: pick-up truck racing

Reece Jones pick up racing

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Pick-up truck racing is a UK motorsport success story that’s been attracting some serious talent

Should Rudolph and chums run out of puff on Christmas morning, Santa could do worse than transfer his stash of gifts from his sleigh to one of the trucks haring around Lydden Hill circuit today. 

“If you ain’t rubbin’, you ain’t racin’,” they like saying here in the friendly but fiercely contested world of pick-up truck racing.

I’ve come to Kent to see the action and meet the people involved, and, with respect to his reindeer, show Father Christmas what he’s missing.   

But wait – pick-up racing? In fact, the only thing the racers at Lydden Hill have in common with Ford Rangers and Nissan Navaras is their profile.

Otherwise, beneath their bonnet, one-seat cab and extended ‘load bay’ (it holds the fuel tank), they’re pure racing car, down to their tubular spaceframe chassis, glassfibre panels, Quaife sequential four-speed gearbox and choice of tuned Vauxhall ‘Redtop’ or Ford Duratec engines. Donner and Blitzen indeed.

Pick-up racing – pack of trucks diving into bend

There has been a championship since 1997, but its origins go back to 1994, when renowned race engineer Sonny Howard, then wowing race-goers with the tuned 2.9-litre V6s that his company, SHP Engineering, fitted to the Ford Mondeos in the Eurocar V6 championship, went to a meeting of classic American racers. 

“Someone brought a tuned pick-up along and I thought: ‘We’ll do that,’” he recalls.

“Rather than convert an existing pick-up, I decided it would be a lightweight race car but with a pick-up body.

John Evans (left) interviews Sonny Howard (right)

“I’d designed spaceframes so created one, then kept things simple with stub axles from a GM truck, a live rear axle from a [Ford] Transit, non-assisted steering and no ABS.

“For simplicity’s sake, the engines were a choice of off-the-shelf 2.0-litre Ford or Vauxhall engines that could be uprated within strict limits.

“From a technical perspective, the championship is tightly controlled.”

Howard launched his racing pick-up at the Autosport Show, where people saw it beating the TVR Tuscans in the show arena.

“People went from telling us we couldn’t go racing in a pick-up to bombarding us with orders,” he says. “We sold 10 almost immediately.” 

Once the major circuits saw it in action, they soon came on board too, and the Pickup Truck Racing Championship was born. 

Pick-ups racing at Lydden Hill

Lydden Hill is popular for saloon, rallycross and sports car racing and, being short and sited part-way up a hill, the whole track is visible from wherever you stand.

I visit on August Bank Holiday Monday and the pick-ups are the main event, supported by 500cc pre-war Formula 3 cars (they can barely get up the hill but look and sound fab) and modified production Fords. 

Dean Tompinks powerslides his pick-up racer

Today’s meeting is the sixth this season (the teams have already competed at Donington and Thruxton, where the pick-ups reach 158mph), with Pembrey and Brands Hatch still to come.

In the paddock, where the pick-ups are prepared for the day’s three races, engines are being revved and chassis jacked as mechanics crowd around vehicles, drivers try to look involved and mums, dads, wives and kids huddle in groups chatting. It’s all very sociable.

BBQ in the pick-up racing paddock

“We’re all mates, at least off the track,” says Jamie Liptrott, a roofer by trade and a former M3 racer in the Kumho BMW Championship.

“The paddock experience is what keeps me coming back; that and the pick-ups, which are much more fun to drive than the M3s.”

John Evans (left) interviews Jamie Liptrott (right)

Like most competitors, Liptrott runs a Vauxhall engine. These are bored out to 2.3 litres and produce around 250bhp.

The Ford engines are 2.5 litres, and while they make an extra 20bhp and 10lb ft, they’re less flexible.

However, today, their grunt may be an advantage on the hill. Another advantage is that the Ford engine is still made; not so  the Vauxhall unit.

Fortunately, James Goldstraw, another driver competing today, can source and tune replacements through his firm, Grace Engine Developments.

Pick-up racers on track

You can tell which engine a pick-up is running by its grille.

A season costs around £20,000 (luckily the pick-ups’ sides lend themselves well to sponsorship).

The pick-up is extra (around £25,000), but there’s strong demand, so if a team quits, it can be sold on.

Howard made the pick-ups – around 40 of them – years ago and won’t build any more. A few have been written off, but most are still going. 

Mechanics swap a rear axle on a pick-up racer

All the drivers look handy and a few boast impressive CVs.

They include former BTCC driver Matt Simpson, 2009 World Banger Racing champion Paul Tompkins (handy if the bumping gets serious) and Mark Willis, a Eurocars veteran who says his rivals are seriously underrated and reckons the series is the most professionally run of them all. Past entrants include BTCC luminaries such as Paul Radisich.

The first two races are 20 laps, while the final is 25.

To keep the racing tight, the positions of the top six finishers are reversed for the next race, which leads to close racing through the field.

Tailgating provides what the drivers call a ‘bump draught’, useful for pulling you along. Nip out to overtake, though, and you risk a ‘side draught’ which, they say, is like hitting the brakes.

Pick-up racers cornering hard

“The pick-ups have the aerodynamics of a brick,” says Simpson. For all the closeness, serious damage is rare, but Liptrott suffers a broken Watt’s linkage.  

After each race, the top three finishers go through scrutineering. Chris Baker has been doing the job for 23 years; he checks the weight is no less than 910kg and the ride height is 76mm.

Pick-up racer on weighing scales

Engine, gearbox and final drive must be sealed: “We check teams obey the rules. It’s good for the sport and for safety.”  

It’s Dale Gent’s fifth year racing pick-ups. He finishes third in the first race – Reece Jones, the 2022 champion, wins – and isn’t impressed: “Lydden isn’t my favourite circuit; it’s a rally track with a coarse surface that’s made for going sideways. It destroys brakes and tyres.”

Pick-up racers jostling

It can’t be too bad, because he finishes second  in the next race, won by Simpson.

Of the 16 cars that started today, 14 make the final.

Pick-up racers on the grid

Within a couple of laps, Simpson leads, and he holds it to the finish. Gent and Jones scrap away to finish second and third.

Face flushed from the effort, Vauxhall-powered Simpson says: “I’m feeling pretty bloody good. I’ve had a few DNFs this season,  so to win two on the trot is good!” 

Pick-up racers cornering in a pack

Back in the paddock, Goldstraw is happy, if frustrated: “It’s a great series but under the radar. It needs more promotion and for people to get behind it.” 

Perhaps Santa could put a 2024 race calendar among his pressies.

Matt Simpson crosses the line

Source: Autocar

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